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The Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule

A book I have found fascinating to re-read more than once is "Outliers," by Malcolm Gladwell. As far as my body of knowledge goes, it’s the seminal book on the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule.

Blake Snyder, the now sadly deceased author of "Save the Cat," which may be the most popular and maybe the best screenwriting book ever written (300,000+ copies sold) also liked this rule, and in fact dedicated his last blog to its ideas (See: http://www.savethecat.com/todays-blog/best-of-blakes-blogs-blakes-last-blog).

What is the 10,000-hour rule and why is it relevant?

To answer by example, take the story of Bill Gates. His world-changing Microsoft Windows is still the operating system for 75% of all personal computers in the U.S., not counting phones.

You probably know that he was a brilliant young man who dropped out of Harvard in his freshman year, 1975, to found Microsoft with fellow genius Paul Allen.

At the time, literally no one on Earth had a commercially-produced personal computer. The IBM PC didn’t come along until 1981, and my 28-pound Osborne I “portable” with the five-inch screen the same year. The Commodore 64 hit the market in 1982 and the Tandy 1000 in 1984.

Even before then, he had a head start: prior computer experience which probably no other kid in the world (except his friend Paul Allen) had, starting in eighth grade.

Through one lucky event after another, he and Allen gained access to computer terminals all the way through high school. And they spent every spare minute at them. Their high school even let them spend their last half of their senior year off campus, doing computer programming, when they were hired by TRW to program. Why did TRW hire two teens? The 10,000 hour rule: even adults with their level of programming experience were extremely rare back then.

So they had put in vastly more than 10,000 hours learning and doing programming when virtually no one else in the world (Gladwell mentions a couple...Steve Jobs, Bill Joy) had a chance of getting in those 10,000 hours - other than being tied to a job at IBM or a big company, which were not opportunities to do what one wanted to do on a mainframe.

As a modern-day screenwriter, you have at least one thing in common with Bill Gates, and possibly two more:

The one is that you have easy access to every resource you could possibly need to write a great screenplay. You have far easier access, in fact, than he had to the resources he needed. When I created my first website from scratch in 1996, I spent a couple hundred hours researching how. By then, a rudimentary research tool call “the Internet browser” was newly available. I’d bought a dial-up modem with a whopping 1200 bps speed (compare: today you could download at 100 mbps if you had Spectrum (Time Warner, Charter), which is 83,888 times as fast as I could fetch data then. Bill Gates had terminals with very fast direct access to mainframes, but with clumsy, characters-only user interfaces.

To put it another way: this is THE golden age, in the entire history of the world so far, of access to all of the resources needed to write great screenplays, from learning how to write character, dialogue and story structure, to how to format, how to spell correctly and write good English, and to all the market information needed to figure out what to write. It is also the screenwriter's golden age (so far) of a multitude of buyers of screenplays and producers of creative content.

When William Goldman wrote that nobody knows anything about what will work, he was speaking of an age in which market research on what works was so rudimentary that, well, no one really knew.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take a market research company with a seven-figure contract to figure out what the markets are for screenplays. You can do it retroactively in a day or two, and with a bit of creative extrapolation, have some idea of what will be marketable later this year.

What it takes to be a successful screenwriter is having the array of talents, one of which is some degree of vision about what will be marketable (which requires research) and then marketing, which requires effort or paying someone to do it for you, or some combination thereof. Marketing is a vital skill you can acquire, even if it’s against your nature to be a huckster or side-show barker. There are follow-the-dots marketing books.

And it takes putting in the 10,000 hard, focused hours. Or more.

And the right attitude. An open mind to learning. A willingness to see “failure” as learning experience. Rats succeed in finding their way out of mazes by hitting dead ends -- trial and error. You are far smarter than the average rat. You can find your way.

That brings me to the final point of this blog. In my research for Be that One In A Hundred, I received a large volume of comments from angry and frustrated writers about the industry. The fact that the comments were negative did not surprise me a bit. I had asked specifically what the industry does wrong and should do better in dealing with aspiring screenwriters.

What did surprise me was that most of the negative commentary from aspiring screenwriters was based on wet dreams and fantasies about what the industry should do differently for “me.”

To be honest with you, the industry is a business, not a social service agency. If it has a social responsibility at all -- and I very strongly believe that it does -- it is to the health of the society, not to you. Because i is a business, it should probably not do many of the things responding screenwriters said it should do. It already does some others.

A good deal of the negativity was comments along this line: that the industry makes only blockbusters, franchises, movies with fat brand and toy/game tie-ins. If you are one of those who holds that belief, I have two thoughts to leave you with:

1. Do you think Bill Gates ever whined, “Why does the computer industry make only huge mainframes?”

2. Do buy my book, and first read the chapter on production companies and what they make. It’ll open your eyes, and maybe boost your morale and show you some opportunities to Be That One In A Hundred.

Oh, the two more things you might have in common with Bill Gates: creative genius and the drive to put in 10,000 hours learning and writing.

Keep writing, and I wish you success.

Bill Donovan
Author of Be That One In A Hundred